Safeguarding Ukraine’s Civil Society
Reporting from Ukraine, Tamar Jacoby meets the local activists working to keep civil society alive during wartime.
Following a wave of Russian attacks, there was no electricity in Kyiv’s Obolonskyi district administration building—essentially a neighborhood town hall—on the day the local council was formed. I had come to Kyiv to explore how the democratic reforms and nation-building so vibrant in Ukraine before the Russian invasion were faring in wartime; this was my first stop. Some three dozen nonprofit volunteers, legal aid lawyers, municipal officials, and people displaced from their homes in other parts of Ukraine—what experts call internally displaced persons or IDPs—sat in the dark in the ornate Soviet-era meeting hall. The wan winter sunshine filtering in past brocade curtains barely cast enough light to see by, but the activists didn’t seem to notice—they were so excited to be moving forward.
This ad hoc coalition of city officials and civil society advocates had gathered to talk about the needs of the estimated 30,000 IDPs who had settled in Obolon in the year since the Russian invasion. Their vision for the “IDP Council” they were launching: that activists would collect information about the migrants’ needs, and government would use it to tailor more effective services. The nonprofit organization spearheading the project, Charity Foundation Stabilization Support Services, was providing humanitarian aid to displaced people across Ukraine. The group says that it has distributed food and other basic supplies to more than 300,000 internal migrants since last February. But this was different, a step up the food chain—humanitarian help combined with grassroots democracy building. The new council’s motto: “Nothing about IDPs without IDPs.”
It was dissident Czech playwright, later president, Vaclav Havel who first grasped the importance of civil society in countries coming out from under the shadow of communist rule. If the essence of authoritarian regimes is total control, top-down, all-encompassing, as brutal as needs be, the antidote is not just individual freedom but also a vibrant fabric of non-governmental groups—from unions to scout clubs to neighborhood associations—that bring people together to pursue their own interests and take responsibility for their own affairs.
Civil society has been a priority in Ukraine since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The new nation’s Western friends and allies, including donors like USAID, the European Union, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, have made support for civil society a priority for more than thirty years. Most observers give Ukraine relatively high marks for the grassroots democracy that has emerged since—a bright spot in a country that has sometimes struggled with other aspects of democratic nation-building, including electoral politics and the battle against corruption.
Ukrainian civil society groups come in all shapes and sizes. Their goals and missions vary widely: just about any imaginable social purpose, from providing legal aid for the elderly to sprucing up an apartment building to cultural exchanges between eastern and western Ukraine. Some groups work with local government; others see themselves in an adversarial role—as advocates or watchdogs. Some are formal entities, registered with the government, with boards, budgets, bank accounts, and full-time staff. Others, often no less powerful, are informal networks—friends, relatives, or an ad hoc cluster of friends and friends of friends who come together to accomplish something, often held together by no more than an instant messaging thread.
Still, for all their differences, most activists share a commitment to a bedrock faith, the defining ideals of Ukrainian civil society. The first of two key tenets is that the political and social ties that matter most are horizontal, not vertical—among neighbors, say, rather than between neighbors and government. The second principle: Any decision made on behalf of a group of people should involve consultation and input from that group, be they tenants or veterans or small business owners. “Nothing about us without us,” as the saying now goes.
Before the 2022 invasion, although successful and well-regarded internationally, Ukrainian civil society was facing an array of challenges. The lion’s share of most groups’ funding came from abroad. Active participation was relatively anemic. Survey after survey showed that no more than 10 percent of the Ukrainian population actually belonged to or participated in a formal civil society organization. And it was sometimes charged, rightly or wrongly, that activists were elites implementing foreign agendas, out of touch with the Ukrainian grassroots they thought they were serving.
Nevertheless, when things worked, the results could be impressive. In Mariupol, a small cadre of civil society activists approached the municipal government in 2014. The city was in dire straits. Recently occupied by pro-Russian forces, then liberated by the Ukrainian military, it was cut off from the rest of the country and filled with destitute migrants. “We wanted to do more than rebuild,” recalls Tetiana Lomakina, now a commissioner in the Zelensky government. “We wanted to build a city that people would love to live in.”
A few dozen activists worked with local government to overhaul how city services were delivered—at a one-stop administrative center, now standard across Ukraine. When a survey showed that people wanted a city more connected to the sea, authorities built a popular recreational pier. Most projects addressed fairly mundane problems, but together they generated a sense of momentum—the idea that government was listening to ordinary people.
It wasn’t always easy to engage local residents. Private property was relatively new in Ukraine, and people still expected someone in authority to manage their apartment buildings. “You waited for the government to come take care of things, then complained about the outcome,” Lomakina joked recently. The activists proposed councils of residents who would come together to make decisions and manage their own affairs. It took a year of aggressive promotion for the idea to take off in Mariupol. It too is now standard across Ukraine. The city’s next step was even more ambitious: a public-option budgeting process that encouraged citizens to come together and propose municipal projects, then allocated funding for plans popular with voters.
The February 2022 invasion changed everything for everyone in Ukraine, including for civil society. Most existing groups dropped whatever they were doing and turned to the crisis at hand. A women’s rights group in Lviv converted its office space into a shelter for IDPs. An organization devoted to youth exchanges began delivering aid from Kyiv to frontline villages in the east of the country—first food and hygienic supplies, then drones, night goggles and, eventually, generators. Other organizations now specialize in evacuating refugees, supplying equipment to the military, and importing medicine and medical technology from Europe, among other missions.
But the biggest change since February is at the grassroots level. “The whole society feels under attack now,” explains long-time activist Igor Mitchnik, “and everyone wants to do their part to help.” Volunteer activity has soared. Old people comb their closets for clothes to tear into rags to make camouflage netting. University students on meager allowances use crowd funding to raise money that they donate to the military. Midcareer professionals put their jobs on hold to volunteer as paramedics on the front lines.
Many volunteer networks are friends and acquaintances who organize themselves on an instant messaging platform. “I post that I have a car and I’m driving east,” explains Ivan Paramonov, who also runs the registered group Shtuka. “Then someone I don’t know, but who knows someone I know, writes back that they have a package they want delivered in the east. I trust them because my friend trusts them. I don’t even ask what’s in the package. I just pick it up and go.”
As this volunteering intensified, some saw an age-old tension reasserting itself—a Ukrainian talent for informal networking combined with a mistrust of anyone in authority, even nonprofit leaders. But others see the two approaches as complementary. “Informal networks are nimble and responsive,” explains Natalia Klymova, director of development at ISAR Ednannia, or Union, a large national umbrella group. “But they’re built on emotion and difficult to sustain. The volunteers eventually burn out. We also need sustainable structures—professional staff who work 9 to 5 and are legally authorized to accept donations.” And indeed, according to activists, the number of civil society organizations registering with the government has also grown dramatically since February.
One of the best windows on the power of Ukrainian civil society was what happened in the city of Kherson when Russians occupied the southern port in early March 2022. Local protests began just days after the tanks rolled in; hundreds of residents gathered in the main square, shouting at the occupiers that they weren’t welcome. Demonstrators came from every sector of society: white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers, children and old people, experienced activists and people who had never shown any interest in politics, all brandishing Ukrainian flags and singing patriotic songs, day after day for several weeks. One dramatic photo featured in the Western media captured an unarmed man with a Ukrainian flag riding on a Russian tank.
But when Russian police searched for a group behind the protests, they couldn’t find one. “There were no organizers,” recalled long-time Kherson activist Oksana Hlebushkina, affiliated with a group called New Generation. She and a core team of other civil society leaders remained in Kherson through the first months of occupation, communicating on an encrypted SMS channel, smuggling in medicine and humanitarian aid, and providing information on Russian positions to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “We helped coordinate the distribution of help,” Hlebushkina reports, “but no one in our group was willing to take responsibility for asking people to come out and protest”—especially when the tear gas and beatings began.
Still, she and other activists were convinced, the demonstrations were an outgrowth of their previous work. “We had shown it was possible to push back against authority,” fellow advocate Natalia Chermonshentseva, also with New Generation, explained. “People were empowered and connected horizontally—they didn’t need to be told what to do.” Hlebushkina agreed. “There were protests in Kherson in the 1990s,” she remembered. “Teachers came out into the streets when authorities withheld their pay. But that was just one group, and they were organized by leaders—activists who told them where to go and what to say. It was nothing like what we saw this year.”
Looking ahead, there can be little question that civil society will be a critical player in the postwar reconstruction of Ukraine. It has many lessons to offer. Municipal officials seeking to restore their cities can learn from Mariupol: the best way to rebuild is in consultation with local residents. International donors must remember to look beyond government, harnessing the energy of local activists to rebuild institutions and strengthen democracy. When the fighting stops, donors must be wary of falling back on old practices—funding the same old groups and imposing the same old inflexible norms. Perhaps most importantly, international backers should find ways to encourage synergy, listening to the grassroots as well as local leaders, then bringing formal organizations and informal networks together to work for the good of their communities.
Other lessons are for activists, who will need to find a balance between working with the government to rebuild while also monitoring authorities’ actions and working to check abuses. “Politicians like war,” warns Oleksandr Yavtushenko, the organizer of the Obolon IDP Council. “In wartime, there are lots of secrets and no elections. Teaching people democracy is the only way to protect ourselves.” Natalia Bordun, director of the institute of leadership and management at Ukrainian Catholic University, takes the opposite view. “It’s always easier to oppose than cooperate,” she says. “There will be plenty of watchdogs. But that won’t be enough. We’re all going to need to work together to rebuild Ukraine.” Both impulses will be essential in the years ahead.
In wartime as before, the hallmark of Mariupol civil society is close cooperation between activists and municipal government. As the Russian noose tightened around the city last spring, nearly half the population fled, scattering across Ukraine. Yet within weeks, “Ya Mariupol” centers—the name means “I am Mariupol”—had emerged in every city where exiles settled. There are sixteen locations so far, including two in Kyiv. The project is spearheaded by the former mayor, Vadym Boychenko, but civil society activists play a vital role. Among the mayor’s lieutenants are the former editor of the city’s leading newspaper and top personnel from the university. Whenever possible, the staff are from Mariupol—the guiding principle is by Mariupol, for Mariupol—and the network is registered as a civil society organization.
According to Boychenko, Ya Mariupol centers have helped more than 250,000 exiles since April, with humanitarian assistance, legal aid, help finding jobs, and psychological counseling, among other services. “The services are vital,” Lomakina confirms. “That’s why we need people from the government.” But government alone isn’t and won’t be enough. “Even more important,” she says, “is a sense of solidarity and hope. People feel lost and alone. They need help understanding that we are Mariupol—that they and others will eventually go back, and we will reconstruct the city.” That’s where civil society comes in, and it will be essential for rebuilding Ukraine. The war is far from over, but Ukrainians haven’t forgotten what they’re fighting for—a truly democratic nation and a free people empowered to make decisions for themselves.
Tamar Jacoby is director of the New Ukraine Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. She is the former deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page, and her latest book is Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.
Image: Volunteers prepare aid for Ukrainian refugees. (UN Women)
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